Left to right, panelists Dr. Tommy Gerschman, Dr. Thuso David and Randi Weiss at the screening of A Heartbeat Away in Vancouver on Nov. 2. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
More than 4,400 children from 55 countries in the developing world have received life-saving heart surgeries because of the efforts of volunteers associated with Save a Child’s Heart Foundation. Thousands more have been saved by doctors trained by the organization’s volunteers.
The Israel-based organization is aiming to expand its reach in British Columbia. A screening of the film A Heartbeat Away in Vancouver on Nov. 2 shared the anxious, sometimes tragic and often uplifting stories faced by medical volunteers associated with the agency.
Marni Brinder Byk, executive director of Save a Child’s Heart Canada, introduced the film and moderated a panel discussion afterward. She explained that when Vancouverite Lana Pulver joined the national board of the organization, it presented an opportunity for more on-the-ground activities in the city.
Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) has another strong Vancouver connection. Vancouverite Randi Weiss recently moved back after spending several years in Israel, where she served as a full-time volunteer with SACH.
The foundation is committed to saving children’s lives by improving the quality and accessibility of cardiac care. Israeli medical experts, and some from other countries, provide free, life-saving surgeries to children from developing countries and also train surgeons and medical teams from those countries, helping them build their own skills.
Entirely as volunteers, SACH doctors travel to Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and other parts of the Middle East to assess potential candidates. A few less urgent cases are treated on the spot, while more serious cases are transported to Israel, where the child and a parent can spend weeks or months during surgery and recovery. A new home, accommodating 61 patients, family members and medical staff, recently opened near the Wolfson Medical Centre in Holon, where the Save a Child’s Heart medical facilities are based.
The film depicted the heartbreaking choices doctors are forced to make during their trips abroad, as young patients whose cases are simply too advanced for an encouraging prognosis have to be rejected. But the film also follows the story of Julius, a kindergarten-age boy from Tanzania, as he travels to Israel and gets a fresh lease on life after a harrowingly complicated surgical procedure.
Weiss said that about half the kids SACH treats are from the Palestinian Authority or other places in the Middle East. About 40% are from African countries, including Ethiopia and Tanzania, she said, while others come from Romania, Moldova and wherever there is a need not being met.
Weiss was joined on the panel after the film’s screening by Dr. Thuso David, a pediatrician from Botswana who arrived in Vancouver in early August to continue his training at B.C. Children’s Hospital. He noted that, in many African countries, there are few medical specialists, so a complex medical issue like congenital or acquired heart disease is rarely treated.
Dr. Tommy Gerschman, another Vancouverite, was also on the panel. He volunteered as a medical intern for SACH in Israel a decade ago.
Save a Child’s Heart Canada was founded in Toronto in 1999 by the late A. Ephraim “Eph” Diamond. Brinder Byk said that SACH’s annual budget is about $6 million US, about one-sixth of which is provided by Save a Child’s Heart Canada. The Canadian contingent has also stepped up in a big way to help fund a new wing at the Wolfson Medical Centre designated especially for SACH’s use.
“We have a lot to be proud of as Canadians, that we will be helping that many more children and training that many more doctors,” said Brinder Byk. “The children of Israel are also going to benefit because, if they live in the catchment area of the Wolfson Medical Centre, they will be able to use their services as well.”